Rachel Smith
UX Designer and Researcher

Northstar Assessments

Redesigning Modules for a Responsive Web

(UX Heuristics/User Analysis, User Research)

Getting Feedback from People Learning Skills!

For the year of September 2017 to August 2018, I joined Americorps (like the Peacecorps but whose programs are located in the United States) for a CTEP (Community and Technology Empowerment Program) Program headquartered in St. Paul. My daily duties included working with teens at the Shoreview Library and teaching various digital literacy skills. 

But the best highlight of the year by far was my being able to lead a team of fellow CTEPers in gathering feedback for newly designed and deployed Northstar Assessment Learning Modules...

My Role Included...

  • UX Research

  • UX Research Planning/Implementation

  • Feedback Data Compiling and Presentation

What are the Northstar Assessments?

The Northstar Assessment website (digitalliteracyassessment.org) features 10 online assessments covering a range of Digital Literacy topics. These were created to address a growing need among community organizations to assess computer skills of job seekers. Job seekers can earn certificates signifying their computer knowledge to employers. Northstar is used in more than 300 locations globally, including over 30 CTEP sites in the Twin Cities.

My role was leading three other colleagues (each working at their own CTEP program site in either Minneapolis or St. Paul) in carrying out and gathering feedback on how learners used the new modules, pinpointing pain points, recording bugs and other duties as the project progressed.

The Problem – Flash Modules in a Responsive World

In recent years, the Northstar assessments became increasingly difficult to support due to their reliance on outdated technology.

In late 2017, Northstar developers initiated a general redesign of the 10 assessments. In addition to the needed technology updates, each assessment would feature a newer, more modern UI and updated content.

A screenshot of what the old Northstar Assessment modules looked like. They

  • Had outdated graphics/buttons/user interactions

  • Were made with Flash, which isn’t always reliable for all testing locations

  • Aren’t responsive, can only be used on desktop

  • As seen in the second image, a user would be stuck if

  • They didn’t know how to update Flash on their computer or

  • They were using a public desktop, where they couldn’t have permission to update Flash

Making a Plan to Test NA Module Users...

I helped with in-person testing once or twice a week at PPL (Project for Pride in Living in Minneapolis) and GAP (Guadalupe Accelerated Programs in South St Paul) , depending on class schedule. I also helped to coordinate Google Hangout meetings with my team twice a month to in on goal progression.

  • Our questions in our testing sessions included:

    • Does the information in the modules match what’s being taught in the computer class you’re taking?

    • Are you able follow the module’s instructions when using keyboard keys?

    • Are you experiencing any bugs?

Overview of Northstar Assessments Users/Personas

Overview of Northstar Assessments Users/Personas

Whom did we Test?

To then left are three personas I created to reflect the average user we tested at three nonprofits in 2018..

  • Personas reflect the kinds of users we were able to help give us feedback on the modules. They were made closer to the end of the project when we were presenting our findings.

  • During our research at our sites (PPL, GAP, etc), we met users who had different learning needs, had different occupations and therefore wanted to complete learning modules for various reasons (to complete their education, gain new skills, etc).

Feedback Forms and Demographic Data...

Above are two feedback forms we used to gather data. One was used for general feedback, such as recording bugs and errors, and the other was used to keep track of specific demographic data from users to ensure a wide variety of use cases. We tracked our feedback using Google Forms made available for 2-3 weeks, for each of our modules, from our lead nonprofit, Northstar Assessments. 

Modules Tested
Usability Testers
Goal of Testers per Module
Module Design Elements Changed
A Screenshot of the Current NA Module

A Screenshot of the Current NA Module

The New Module Layout

A snapshot of the new Northstar Assessment Module features

  • An improved textual and visual hierarchy – the text and headings are sized and placed more effectively than the previous module

  • New buttons on the top right of the module allows users to repeat the question audio and the hamburger menu lists questions the user has answered or has yet to answer

  • The area below the module has new features: a higher contrast progress bar, an I Don’t Know button which skips over a question and new Closed Caption, Mute and Fullscreen buttons

Below is a link to video I made going into further detail regarding this User Research Project:


Lessons Learned Working for a Nonprofit...

Being able to use my UX research skills for a nonprofit was a great opportunity to use my skills! I was eager to bring up this project as part of my Americorps completion requirement and loved leading my colleagues in thinking about how users interact with technology.

In the beginning, I was able to meet with more of my colleagues in person to go over feedback and questions. As we got more busy with our nonprofits’ calendars and Summer events, we needed to meet more via Google Hangouts. As much as I love to collaborate in person, being flexible to meet virtually was a necessity going forward in gathering feedback. My colleagues found the project insightful and I was happy to grow into a leadership role!

"We’re very excited about your project and testing. We’ve been looking forward to updating the modules for a long time!"
- Feedback from nonprofits in August 2018 (during our Year-End Presentation)